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The Milk House: And then there’s the volcano

Ryan Dennis for Progressive Dairy Published on 02 September 2021

The last year-and-a-half, I’ve gotten into the habit of starting emails in the same way, which is usually something like: “How’s life treating you, considering the end of the world? Hope you and yours are safe.”

The responses are generally similar, stating that they’re coping but looking forward to better days, or maybe mentioning a small, current inconvenience. It’s both alarming and comforting how nearly anything can feel normalized after a while. Perhaps that’s why the reply from my former professor in Iceland was so jarring: “We’re doing fine. Except for the lava flowing toward our farm.”

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On March 19, 2021, Iceland’s Fagradalsfjall volcano erupted for the first time in 6,000 years. Located on the Reykjanes Peninsula, it is a safe distance from both the airport and the capital city, Reykjavík, but close enough to bring in thousands of visitors each week to witness the raw power of a rare natural event. Scientists suggest that the eruptions may go on for anywhere from several months to a decade. Nonetheless, unlike Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 – which stopped air traffic in Europe for several months – Fagradalsfjall has been relatively harmless.

Except if your farm is in its way.

While it’s exciting to see Mother Nature at her most powerful, not all volcanic eruptions in Icelandic history have been so benign. On June 8, 1783, a dark cloud rose in the sky that eventually rained black ash. That was the beginning of the nine-month explosion from the Laki volcano that would prove to be the most destructive event ever recorded on the island.

The fissure in the earth stretched over 16 miles and included 140 craters that spewed lava and poisonous gases to a level never witnessed before or since in Iceland. The ash cloud was so dense people could not see a few feet in front of them, and there was so much sulphuric acid in the rain it burned inhabitants’ eyes and skin and made it nearly impossible to breathe. The eruptions were on such a scale they not only changed the physical landscape of the island but the living environment as well. The grass became tainted with hydrogen fluoride, causing deformations in the teeth and bones of livestock. Birds fell dead out of the sky, and rotting salmon floated on top of rivers.

A famine beleaguered Iceland for the next three years, all the vegetation in the locality of Laki having died. More than 10,000 Icelanders – nearly a quarter of the population – perished. This followed heavy losses of livestock on the island, including 75% of its sheep and nearly half of its cattle and horses. In one area near the eruption, it was reported that there was only one horse left strong enough to carry bodies toward burial sites. The volcanic event was so powerful the particles it sent into the atmosphere was said to cause crop failures and starvation across the Northern Hemisphere. Some historians suggest the Laki eruption induced the famine in Europe that eventually led to the French Revolution.

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The Icelandic government built a dyke to try to direct the flow of lava from Fagradalsfjall, but the flow eventually topped its banks. At one point, there was fear that the lava would head toward The Blue Lagoon, the island’s biggest tourist attraction, or reach the only highway that goes around the island and render it impassible. Eventually, the lava took a different direction, but ultimately people like my professor are left with not much more to do than to wait to see what this volcano’s total destruction will be.

In 1873, the inhabitants of Kirkjubæjarklaustur found themselves in a similar situation. A branch of Laki’s lava was headed toward their town. Their reverend, Jón Steingrímsson, gathered everyone in the church. As the story goes, it was also storming, with lightning and thundering shaking the valley. Without any other options, Steingrímsson gave a passionate sermon that was later called The Fire Mass (Eldmessan), calling on his flock to have faith. Naturally, when the oration was over, the doors of the church were swung open to find the lava had stopped flowing just short of the building.

I lived in Iceland for two years, and I’ll admit one of my goals was to see a volcanic eruption. I thought I had hit the jackpot in 2014 when I got word that the Bárðarbunga volcano was going to blow. What followed, however, was mostly disappointment. Less an eruption than a slow gurgle, there wasn’t much to see. I’m not sure if it was possible to get close to Bárðarbunga, but I don’t know anyone who did. Instead, all the eruption accomplished was to turn the air sour for a few months and made us close our windows at night, lest we get a scratchy throat.

In total, in dealing with a letdown and watery eyes, I made out better than many others had in the history of volcanic eruptions. Fagradalsfjall may be a long way from over yet, and the manner it will change local communities has not been fully tallied. Fields have already disappeared, and a few farms may turn to rock before it’s all said and done. In truth, I’m a bit nervous to send an email and find out. end mark

Ryan Dennis is the author of The Beasts They Turned Away, a novel set on a dairy farm. His website is Ryan Dennis

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